Unemployment agency to reopen offices for in-person service by mid-July

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency plans to reopen its 12 offices by mid-July after a more than 15-month closure and a record number of claimants.  

The offices have been closed since March 2020 because of safety concerns for claimants and employees as well as the belief that employees can better serve claimants over the phone or online. 

Unemployment Insurance Agency Liza Estlund Olson's notification of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government on Tuesday comes as the state's COVID-19 numbers steadily decrease and about 58% of the state's residents 16 and older have been vaccinated.  

Lisa Estlund Olson

Estlund Olson said unemployment numbers also are going down. 

Michigan's unemployment rate dropped to 4.9% in April, according to data from the state Department of Technology, Management & Budget, down from the pandemic's April 2020 peak of 22.7%.

"We just think we'll continue to see fewer people needing unemployment in the summer months," Estlund Olson said.

Almost a year ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers unsuccessfully asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reopen regional unemployment offices to help process some of the chronically delayed claims submitted to the agency. Constituents around the state were frustrated by the inability to speak with someone in person, according to a letter from 12 Michigan House members.

The Tuesday announcement followed months of record-high unemployment claims complicated by insufficient staffing and a deluge of fraud. Some early estimates pegged the total in fraudulent claims at hundreds of millions. 

The state has paid out roughly $34.5 billion in claims to about 3.3 million people since March 15, 2020.

In some cases, claimants waited for months to get their unemployment claims processed and argued that in-person office meetings could help to solve some of the issues facing the processing of those claims. 

GOP lawmakers as early as June pushed for the opening of the offices to sort through those unresolved claims. In October, the House passed $2 million in supplemental funding to pay for the reopening of unemployment offices, but the money didn’t make it to the final supplemental approved by both chambers in December. 

The UIA has added about 1,500 staff members since March and has expanded options to contact the agency to include phone calls, online chats and virtual appointments. Even prior to the pandemic, Michigan was one of the few states to have any unemployment offices. 

The Unemployment Insurance Agency also plans to reinstate work search requirements temporarily suspended during the pandemic. The search mandates require claimants to report at least once a week tot he agency on at least one activity they've completed to search for a job. Those activities can include attending a job fair or an interview, or submitting a job application. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com